The origin of the name Isla Mujeres is debated- some theories assert that the name comes from the statues of the medicine and childbirth goddess, Ixchel, found at a Mayan temple on the south of the island. Others say that the name comes from the fact that the Spanish explorers left their womenfolk on the island before heading into the Yucatán.
No matter the nomenclature, the island is truly beautiful. Sitting offshore, it has maintained its incredibly chill vibe despite the proximity of frenetic Cancún. It’s a decidedly Caribbean place, where the pace is determined by the sea and sand.
First, Playa Norte-
… it’s a gem of a beach. Just off the main town, it is very well appointed with bars and bathrooms nearby. For 150 pesos (13 dollars or so) you can rent a pair of lounge chairs and umbrella at the edge of the water for the entire day. You’d think there’d be a crowd here, but the place was wide open- at times I was the only one swimming.
The water is impossibly clear and blue, and very swimmable, despite a strong side current. Towards evening a school of thousands of tropical fish appeared, racing along at crazy speed around my legs.
It feels as though one could spend an eternity here.
As evening begins to fall and the heat becomes bearable again, people start lazily coming off the beach and into the town. In the narrow streets, small restaurants begin opening their doors while street vendors, selling everything from jewelry to plastic toys, try to snag would-be shoppers. Bicycles and golf carts (some packed to the brim) abound on the narrow, colorful streets filled with lazy markets and passers-by.
Outside the stores on the corner, people congregate for evening chats. There’s a certain endearing eccentricity to this place- at one point a beat-up old humvee rolled up, coughing diesel, driven by a huge shirtless guy with scraggly long hair. He stopped to talk a while and then moved on. Meanwhile, just out of view, local teenagers with a laptop were trying to tap into a rogue wireless signal…
It was a really nice ride back to the mainland-
The scene felt like one giant sigh that comes after a day at the beach- huge extended families covering 3 generations posed for pictures, while couples stared up and watched the stars begin to appear. The ship’s lights illuminating the bright blue water around us. At some point between Isla Mujeres and Cancún -the lights of both twinkling far in opposite distances- in the middle of the dark bay, a salty breeze kicked up. Above all the festivities and the blaring Mexican pop music and satiated joy, you could just make out the eternal serenity of a calm sea under moonlight.
“Where are you going?”, says the parking lot attendant. We’d just ridden down the hill to the ferry terminal, trying to beat time. The night before was a late one. After a drenching day in the mountains and rainforest, there had been many cigars, much swimming, and much rum. Much rum.
“To the Culebra ferry”
It’s a bleary, stuffy, morning and the hazy sun promises overbearing heat.
“Go! Go! Go! What are you doing standing here?!”
Stray dogs in the terminal. The sun too jarring. U.S. agents checking for who knows what. Board the boat, and push off to sea, watching Fajardo fade away.
Ten minutes on, the ferry is heaving and rolling. It’s too early to be doing this shit. The breakfast of black hotel coffee has become regrettable. Churn. Attendants walk the aisles with barf bags for the imminently ill. But the real smasher is the dramamine. It helps seasickness (much needed on this morning) surely, but the things it does to the mind are warped. Thoughts become soggy, everything is distant. You speak, but don’t connect your mind to the words. Despite your outward lucidity, you can’t seem to keep track of the present. How is this stuff legal to sell over the counter?
We arrive, and after a much needed stop at an empanada stand, we hop a colectivo and ride to Playa Flamenco. The island is barren, sun-parched – the sky is huge in the way it is always huge on small islands. The driver has a beer.
Playa Flamenco is a secluded cove. Other than a few makeshift facilities and a few food stands, the beach is wild. And stunning. Seawater cannot get any clearer than the seawater here. The smell of grilling wafts by occasionally. The food is delicious.
Some distance away are a couple of armored tanks, leftover from the days when the U.S. military used this shore as a firing range and training ground. Rusted hulks half buried in the sand, every last inch of them covered in painting.
You could disappear on this island for a longtime. To camp for a couple of months here would be a dream.
But we had to catch the last ferry back.
In the town, teenagers dive off the pier, swimming as the sunset begins. The departing ferries are a zoo. The end of the President’s Day weekend – hoards of high-schoolers singing along to Spanish rock savoring every last minute of the holiday. Loudly. One of those “Shut the hell up!” moments. But you can’t say it, because you’re kind of there too. Your insides softly lamenting the passage of time while still trying to wrench out all the last juice.
No matter. That night we ate, and swam, and smoked, and drank, and talked outside for hours. The next morning we left Puerto Rico for the barren and cold north.
a gathering collective
a glance of breeze
two be one
a meeting of minds
and alone together
an old house in a new world.
please bless us
us who sit in the changing light
and hope for all hopes
that serenity comes to those
and us who strain in all that longs
for peace to grace those who
refuse to leave the light
-san juan rooftop, feb. 15, 2008
If you arrive in Old San Juan in the middle of the night, with men sleeping on the dark silent sidewalks and the smell of piss in the dank air, the first morning is brilliant.
Bright sky and the comforting blanket of vegetal heat. Color splashes everywhere – aquamarine water, shaded gardens, sea-weathered walls, and pastel on every building in sight. The green carpet of El Morro’s vast Campo. The paving stones, carried over as ballast on colonial Spanish ships, are a metallic blue.
The smell of coffee and breakfast pepper the air, mixing with the scent of sea and earth.
The city was founded only 16 years after Columbus’s first voyage, by Juan Ponce de León, the man who searched for the Fountain of Youth. For centuries, it was a stopover on the Spanish galleon routes, and an occasional target of English pirates and privateers. In testament to the city’s former stature, Old San Juan is surrounded by a wall and protected by two mighty forts.
Evening in San Juan is golden light, ice cream, and cigars in parks. The breeze becomes sublime as the sun drops in glorious orange and yellow.
Night in San Juan is music and life. Restaurants overflow. Teenagers fill corner stores, drinking rum punch from “Capri-sun” pouches. Salsa pours out of the Nuyorican Cafe, bomba y plena from hidden bars and at outdoor parties. (Bomba y plena is a precursor to salsa using a variety of hand percussion and call-response singing. It is not so much performed as played communally. The dancing interacts intimately with the rhythm and the melodies are thrillingly hypnotic.)
At the impromptu party on the waterfront, cake is passed out liberally to guests and by-standers alike. The experience of San Juan is not observational. When you’re here, you become a part of the town’s fabric.
Rum is everywhere. Bacardi, of course, but also del Barrilito, Palo Viejo, Don Q, and scores of others fill supermarket shelves and stock bars. They well fuel mojitos – but it’s most tasty on the rocks, as in Hunter S. Thompson’s The Rum Diary.